His team had trailed 24-0 at halftime, but now he was sprinting uncontested toward the end zone to cap a run of 35 unanswered points and the most unlikely of victories.
By the time Chris Harris Jr. scored, Philip Rivers could be seen in the background growling with anger about the exclamation-point interception he had just thrown.
“I remember at one point in that game he said something like, ‘Go back to Arkansas,’ ” Harris recently recalled, laughing. “Philip had no idea where I was from.”
Undrafted out of Kansas, Harris established himself in the NFL in that game. Eight years ago. On “Monday Night Football.” In his second season. Against the Chargers, his new team in 2020.
He had shown himself to be a potential full-time starter the year before, as a rookie on a Denver team that was building toward making two Super Bowl appearances in three years.
But, on Oct. 15, 2012, in the Broncos’ stirring 35-24 win at Qualcomm Stadium, Harris cemented his future with a pair of interceptions, the second of which ended the scoring in the final three minutes.
“That was the game that showed I should be a regular starter,” Harris said. “It was a big game for everyone to see. I think it really proved I didn’t have a fluke rookie year.”
Entering the 2020 season, through the whims of free agency, Rivers is gone and Harris is a Charger as the team transitions into a new era.
This will be Harris’ 10th year in the league, with the veteran cornerback expected to boost a secondary and a defense both forecast to be among the NFL’s finest.
“I feel like he still has a lot in the tank,” Chargers safety Derwin James said. “Adding him will allow the defense to be very multiple. … His tape speaks for itself. There’s a lot you can learn from a guy like that.”
Harris, who just turned 31, was the catalyst behind Denver’s “No-Fly Zone,” which once dominated opposing passing games.
He is a four-time Pro Bowler and was named All-Pro after the 2016 season. He has won awards for his toughness and for his professionalism. He was the Broncos’ Walter Payton Man of the Year nominee three years ago.
"I’m hungry. My mindset now is like I’ve got to reinvent myself, reprove everything."
Chris Harris Jr., Chargers new cornerback
With Harris, Denver was routinely a top-five defense against the pass until sliding to the middle the rankings the past two seasons. He can play outside and has lined up at safety but is considered a premiere slot corner.
“My story’s not done,” Harris said. “I’ve got a lot of goals I still want to accomplish, starting this year. I’m hungry. My mindset now is like I’ve got to reinvent myself, reprove everything. That gives me a lot of motivation.”
Yes, Harris brings plenty to the Chargers, including the sort of perseverance that enabled him to become a star after being listed as a fourth-stringer for his first NFL exhibition game.
During his four years at Kansas, he went from playing on a team that won 12 games to one that won three. He endured a position switch and a coaching change and, while accumulating nearly 300 tackles, had only three interceptions.
In the 2011 draft, all 32 teams repeatedly passed on Harris — 254 draft selections and no phone call. He was deemed unfit while 53 other defensive backs were taken.
When the Broncos finally signed Harris, they gave him a three-year deal worth up to $1.3 million but with only his $2,000 signing bonus guaranteed. He used part of that bonus to treat himself to the newest PlayStation.
Five years ago, in a story for The Players’ Tribune, Harris detailed the relentless motivation he gained from not being drafted, noting, “Every play is an opportunity to prove wrong everyone who did not recognize my talent.”
He concluded the story by writing, “I know there is only one way to make sure that people never forget my name. Win the Super Bowl.” Six months later, Denver beat Carolina in Super Bowl 50.
“That was the goal, man,” Harris said. “I actually had forgot about that story. But we had such a talented team that it was like, ‘We gotta win it this year or we might not ever win it.’ ”
Harris also brings to the Chargers a notable nickname. He explained that it was his cousin who first called him “Strap.” The Broncos were gathered in a tunnel before a game a few years ago when his cousin shouted the nickname from the stands nearby.
“It’s like I’m strapping you in and locking you up,” Harris said. “A couple cats heard him and from there everyone sort of picked up on it and it stuck.”
At the urging of his wife, Leah, Harris has added to his “Strap” persona by occasionally incorporating a celebration where he mimics using a seat belt.
His wild ride in Denver, from undrafted to unparalleled, is over. Now Harris hopes to continue to roll as a reborn, incoming veteran.
“It’s a new and uncomfortable situation,” he said. “I was a Bronco for so long. I’m going somewhere new and doing something different. But when you’re in uncomfortable situations, that’s when you can get great growth.”